The Inland Sea
18 June 2020
The Inland Sea – Madeline Watts
The experience of a Sydney summer is hard to describe to anyone who has not lived through it. I read this book in the first weeks of Sydney winter, and from the very beginning the story slapped me in the face with the feeling of summer. The heat and humidity, bushfire smoke blanketing the city, running across hot sand to plunge into the cool ocean, the way the hot days drag on and on into autumn. This book appealed as I have been making an effort to read more Australian fiction recently, and I have been really enjoying it. There is something very comforting about stories set in familiar places – a small piece of home waiting for you between the pages. That particular delight to be found in the feeling that you have walked the same streets and seen the same sights as the characters you love.
I am not sure quite how to talk about the ways in which this book resonated with me. The author uses multiple narrative styles that I usually find irritating – disjointed, stream-of-consciousness narration and no speech punctuation – but somehow it came together perfectly for this story. The writing itself is so beautiful that I found myself reading passages over again in sheer enjoyment, and the story is incredibly powerful and expertly crafted. Our narrator remains nameless, leaving her as somewhat of a blank slate even as we look at the world through her eyes and through the lens of her life. I am a similar age to the narrator and that contributed to how deeply her story resonated with me. While her experience as a twenty-something in Sydney in 2013 is very different to my own, I walked away feeling like the author had looked straight into my soul and left me raw and exposed. The feeling of being in your early twenties in Sydney and trying to find purpose and meaning in life is very real and very relatable.
Madeleine Watts does not shy away from talking about difficult and confronting topics. The main one being the looming threat of climate change and how that impacts the psyche of the young people coming of age in these times of upheaval. Anxiety about the state of the climate is threaded throughout the story, as the narrator speculates about what the world will look like on the other side of rising sea-levels and temperature increases. The story is book-ended by summer, particularly the bushfires and record heat. Smoke blankets the city, and the acrid smell is everywhere.
The story also confronts the everyday sexism that is to be found in every part of our society. As our narrator walks the streets of Sydney in the early hours of the morning, with her keys threaded through her fingers, we are given a glimpse into the lives of young women everywhere – her fear and anxiety is all too familiar. Moments like this are scattered through the book, reminding us that though great strides have been made, there is still a long way to go before women can be safe in the streets they call home.
Weeks after finishing it I am still haunted by this book and the message it carries. Part manifesto on the state of the world part detailed character study, there are no wasted words or thoughts. I was hooked from the first pages and devoured the whole thing in a few sittings. The story spoke to, and resonated with something deep inside me. This is definitely a book that will stay with me for a very long time and I will be recommending it at every chance!